Nell Tiger Free in The First Omen (2024)

‘The First Omen’ movie review: This horror prequel is the best Omen since the original

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An American nun-to-be discovers that all isn’t right at a convent in Rome in The First Omen, which opens in Prague and cinemas worldwide this weekend. This direct prequel to 1976’s The Omen is masterfully directed by Arkasha Stevenson in her feature debut, accentuated by showstopping scenes of violence and dripping with trenchant horror atmosphere. It’s easily the best film in franchise since the original, and 2024’s first great horror film.

The First Omen stars Nell Tiger Free as Margaret, an orphan raised by the church in the states who arrives in Rome in 1971 to take her vows and become a nun. The kindly Father Lawrence (Bill Nighy) greets her at the airport, and explains the the societal turbulence that has led to city-wide protests on their way to a convent dedicated to assisting young mothers in childbirth and caring for orphans.

But upon her initial tour of the convent by Sister Silvia (Sonia Braga), Margaret soon picks up on something that isn’t quite right: a young girl being kept isolated in a ‘bad room’ who has terrifying visions. And soon enough excommunicated Father Brennan (Ralph Ineson) meets her on the sly to relay info about the convent’s sinister plot to bring the Antichrist into the world; no surprise to us as Father Harris (Charles Dance) outlined everything to Brennan in The First Omen‘s cold open.

Waitaminute… didn’t we see this exact same story just two weeks ago in Immaculate? Yes, and a year before that in The Devil Conspiracy. But this one strikes the right balance between the self-seriousness of the former and the campiness of the latter, and drops the silly DNA of Christ angle for something far more sinister.

It’s an ill-timed release, but The First Omen is clearly the cream of this begotten crop, though it may not contain anything as shocking as Immaculate‘s showstopping final scene with Sydney Sweeney. But there are a couple real contenders, including what must be the most explicit birth scene you’ll ever see in a mainstream release, one deftly presented and framed by director Stevenson to induce curiosity at the true horror lurking within… until it’s too late.

The First Omen deals in some startlingly grisly death scenes, including a suicide one that adds some fire to a similar moment in the original film (and one-ups Immaculate in the process) and a especially gory moment of vehicular mayhem. But the film’s greatest asset is its skillful handling of the scares: jumps featuring an ominous habit behind a wind-blown curtain and a ghost in the inky-black darkness are as good as this king of thing gets.

Nell Tiger Free (Apple TV+’s Servant, and previously Myrcella Baratheon on Game of Thrones), is a revelation in the central role, and carries the film with the confident screen presence of a young Amy Adams. The First Omen asks a lot of her with a character that runs the gamut from innocent ingénue to bold seductress, and sympathetic caretaker to possessed devil-mother, but we are never less than fully invested in her journey thanks to her commanding turn.

She also gets a lot of help in support: Ineson, Dance, and Nighy all lend The First Omen more credibility than these types of horror movies typically get, and Braga is especially menacing as the head Sister clearly up to no good. Even smaller roles are filled with some memorable flair: Maria Caballero, as the sister taking her vows alongside Margaret, strikes the perfect nunsploitation balance between Catholicism and sexual allure, especially in a memorable sequence where she dons the coif and veil as if they were bondage gear.

First-rate production design quite wonderfully recreates 1971 Rome and cinematographer Aaron Morton captures plenty of the city throughout. There’s some terrific use of lighting and darkness including a Dario Argento-esque trip to a nightclub, and plenty of memorable, thematically-rich shots, including Margaret with her hair splayed out on the bed the night after, mascara running down her cheeks.

Despite the first-rate presentation, there’s a predictable nature to the plot (we’re way ahead of the third act twist) and inherent silliness in the material that will keep it from scoring high outside of the horror demographic, a la the original film or the original The Exorcist. The First Omen is a film that is very much about devil-worshipping cults and sinister plots whereas more refined features may only hint at them, but if you can accept that going in, you’ll find a lot to like here.

2024 hasn’t gotten off to a strong start in the horror department, with the release of Blumhouse clunkers Night Swim and Imaginary and the aforementioned Immaculate. That one received some surprisingly positive reviews despite its dull presentation, but from scares and atmosphere to a coherent storyline and genuine character development, The First Omen gives horror fans everything Immaculate failed to deliver.

The First Omen

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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